Gina MacCarthy, Director of Brand Communications for WPP’s Ford of Europe team asks, is our focus on a safe driving narrative going far enough?

As the European agency lead for Ford’s safety and awareness programmes, I spend a large part of each working day navigating the complex messaging and polarising viewpoints that contribute to the broader topics of driver safety, multi-modal travel, over-crowded urban centres and reducing air pollution.

Fact: road accidents are the number one killer of young adults, worldwide. Those deaths are disproportionately represented by vulnerable road users; pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. So I’ll start by saying that safe driving communications are absolutely as relevant and important as ever.

Ford’s Driving Skills For Life offers free hands-on safety training for young drivers. Their Share The Road initiative was developed based on very simple insights; tensions between motorists and cyclists on shared roads aren’t just unpleasant, they are dangerous. By driving deeper empathy between road users, we aimed to help make roads safer.

Our ambition for both of these programmes hasn’t changed – but it is my opinion that the original premise must. More and more, I am questioning my own fixation on ‘safety.’ That is not the only thing we should be concerning ourselves with – surely it’s time to evolve the narrative?

The roads of today are not the same roads of 2018 when we launched Share The Road. In January of that year, a study showed that the number of young people learning to drive was rapidly declining. Almost half of 17-20-year-olds could drive in 1992-4 but more recent figures show just 29%, reported The Guardian. And the number of adults cycling in the UK had peaked at just over 27,000.

Add a global pandemic and the picture is very different. In 2020, the AA reported a +500% increase in demand for driving lessons as soon as lockdown #1 restrictions were lifted. While traffic numbers dropped during 2020, a You-Gov Cambridge Globalism Project concluded that people were planning to use their cars more, post-Covid. The change in the types and (shorter) distances of journeys needed, has also led to a 200% increase in cyclists, while eScooter trials are now firmly established in many parts of the UK adding a further protagonist into the modal mix. The pandemic has led to a natural re-assessment of when and how we travel. While this had an impact on reducing crashes, according to WHO, the number of road traffic fatalities continued to increase.

The pandemic has also rightly focussed our collective minds on climate change. Ford, like all of its automotive counterparts, is fully committed to achieving carbon neutrality and has an aggressive electrification strategy with a commitment to make 100% of their passenger vehicles all-electric by 2030.

In parallel, at every level of Government, changing the way we move from A-B is a logical focus for a necessary and long-overdue mission to get us all moving more actively and sustainably. Since 2020, major UK cities including London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester have been subject to the Low Traffic Neighbourhood experiment – a traffic calming scheme that limits vehicular access to communities by redirecting the flow of traffic to boundary roads thus making it less desirable to drive whilst also preventing the through-traffic ‘rat runners’ that speed through residential thoroughfares. This helps quieten some areas, making them safer and healthier for residents.

I confess that, as a long-term lover of driving and a resident of the now infamous LTN 21 in West London, I initially found the scheme inconvenient; unable to take my car to my usual haunts of the local supermarket or the odd nursery-run on a rainy day. But here’s another fact. Short urban car journeys like these account for the majority of air pollution in residential areas. So I, like many of the residents of these LTNs woke up to the reality that, as a car user, I need to care more about how and when I use my car – not just in the context of caring about the safety of others, but in the context of how I can contribute personally to the collective issues we all face of reducing road deaths AND reducing the health and environmental threats posed by air pollution.

What is interesting, however, are that these conversations – whether they’re around safety, tensions between road users, or congestion and air pollution – tend to be voiced by factional tribes. The “anti-car” brigade vs. the “entitled drivers”. Honestly, as a communications professional, I’ve long believed that this narrative is counter-intuitive and obsolete. The voice of the automotive industry may not be popular among the hardened environmentalist or pro-cycling groups but, nonetheless, automotive brands have massive reach in terms of audience and resource as well as massive responsibility. This is why I’m partnering with my client to help change the narrative.

Road safety is still as important as ever. But so is road responsibility. This is where I believe all road users can unite. It’s not (yet) a narrative I see coming from many mainstream voices. But that is something we are working to change.